British Wildlife of the Week
The red grouse is a very British bird. I say that not because it encapsulates anything particularly British (although it is widely known as the logo of The Famous Grouse whisky), but because it is found nowhere else in the world apart from the British Isles. However, although it was once thought to be its own separate species, most experts now believe that the red grouse is actually a distinct race of the willow ptarmigan, which lives elsewhere in northern Europe, Asia and America. That means it is an endemic subspecies rather than a species in its own right.
The main difference between the red grouse and willow ptarmigan found elsewhere is that ‘our’ bird is more reddish-brown in colour. It also retains its beautiful russet plumage for the whole year, whereas other willow ptarmigan turn white for the winter months. (As a side note, the willow ptarmigan should not be confused with the rock ptarmigan, which also changes colour in winter, and which we’ve already covered on this blog.)
The red grouse sits at the centre of one of the most raging wildlife debates in our country. Although it is a wild animal, no other native British bird is so carefully managed. It is nurtured and safeguarded, not for the sake of the bird itself, but to sustain the multimillion-pound industry that is grouse shooting. The grouse shooting season will soon be underway (it starts on 12 August and runs until 10 December), which means that wealthy clients may be forking out thousands of pounds for a single day of blasting these plump gamebirds.
Does grouse shooting have its benefits? Certainly not to the grouse that are killed, of course, but perhaps to the species as a whole. The open heather moorland upon which these birds live is very carefully managed in order to accommodate the grouse and increase their density, which, proponents of the sport say, is highly beneficial for conservation purposes. This management involves regular burning to provide a constant supply of young heather (which the birds depend on for food and shelter) and to remove trees and grass. It has been argued that if humans didn’t manage the grouse and their habitat in this way, this endemic subspecies could well be endangered today, perhaps even extinct.
But while it’s true that well-managed moorland is great for certain animals, such as breeding wading birds, intensive management all too often leads to monoculture, which does not encourage a diverse range of animal species overall. Grouse moors have become, in effect, artificial (and often barren) habitats, unnaturally controlled in a usually destructive way that can have a detrimental effect on other local wildlife. Not only that, but burning peat to promote new growth of heather for the gamebirds releases huge amounts of stored carbon into the atmosphere.
There are other issues, too. Grouse shooting can certainly bring economical benefits, especially to deprived upland communities in Scotland and northern England. In fact, it is said to contribute £23.3 million to the Scottish economy every year. And it can also bring in income to pay for wildlife management.
However, because of its financial aspect, the shooting business desires the control of the red grouse’s natural predators to prevent losses. Many of these predators have been ruthlessly (and illegally) persecuted, to the point that some of them, such as the hen harrier, have been virtually eliminated from much of the grouse’s range. In 2016, in the whole of England, the number of hen harrier nests from which chicks successfully fledged was three. Just three. It seems that we humans feel the need to kill animals that are killing the animals that we wanted to kill in the first place.
Many countries celebrate their unique, endemic species. Some even have them on their currency. The British, however, seem to celebrate shooting their unique animals. It would be great if, one day, more people shot red grouse with cameras rather than with guns. But I fear that we still have a long way to go before that future becomes a reality.
Here at The Nature Nook, we’ve been posting British Wildlife of the Week articles for almost a full year now. Next week will be our 50th article in this series, believe it or not, and, in order to make room for a future weekly feature, it will be our final one for the time being. So in next week’s special edition, to follow on from the red grouse, we’ll be looking at five other animals and plants that are found nowhere else in the world other than here in the British Isles.